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ASEAN once again fails to tackle the region’s foremost challenges

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JAKARTA – The official statement that came out of last week’s ASEAN Summit in Bangkok has once again laid bare the grouping’s inability to grapple with the rising challenges to democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia, the Board of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said today.

ASEAN as an institution, as a political grouping of nations, is failing to live up to its stated aims: the restrictive framework within which the region’s leaders are forced to operate make it impossible for them to effectively tackle the most serious and thorny issues this region is now facing.

ASEAN’s consistent failure to reform itself so as to be able to take on these problems poses an existential threat to the organisation. Our leaders failed to tackle the Rohingya crisis in any meaningful way, and used the Summit to advance regional trade deal talks that are being held in direct contradiction to their stated values of sustainability and economic development for all. The largest elephant in the room of all – the startling rise in authoritarianism and threats to democracy in Southeast Asia and across the globe – was completely overlooked.

In reference to the Chairman’s statement released by Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 23 June 2019, we highlight several concerns. Despite the decline in democracy in Thailand (this year’s ASEAN Chair) and in the region as a whole, not once did the word “democracy” appear in the text. Furthermore, ASEAN noted its “satisfaction” with the bloc’s human rights mechanism, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), and its role “in the promotion and protection of human rights in ASEAN”. In reality, the body has failed to tackle or condemn human rights violations in the region, including related to the Rohingya crisis.

The statement furthermore failed to acknowledge atrocities by the Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State, or to even use the term “Rohingya”. In the build-up to the Summit, APHR, FORUM-ASIA and Progressive Voice called on ASEAN to make the protection of Rohingya rights a priority.

ASEAN also problematically mentioned that they expect Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Inquiry to address the lack of accountability around the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar however has a disturbing track record of completely failing to investigate its own abuse, and the UN and human rights NGOs have all called into serious question the Commission’s ability to fulfil its mandate. APHR reiterates that the international community is crucial to ensuring justice for atrocities in Myanmar, and calls on members of the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.

Lastly, as ASEAN leaders reiterated their commitment to conclude Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations within this year, APHR stresses that the protection of human rights and people’s interests must be a central focus in negotiations around the trade deal.